In the coming days, the US will make a critical decision that has the potential to change the US' standing in the world: whether to approve a US$537 million grant that will help make New York City the first environmentally sustainable megacity in the 21st century.
Officials at the US Department of Transportation must appreciate that their decision to fund New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's visionary project, called PlaNYC, will determine the quality of air that more than 10 million New Yorkers breathe daily and the amount of carbon dioxide emissions the city coughs into the atmosphere.
Already, New York City produces more carbon dioxide emissions than all of Norway. More importantly, officials must realize that their actions will shape the US' response to the global challenge of unparalleled urbanization and carbon-induced climate change.
This year, for the first time in history, more people will live in urban areas than rural communities. In the US, the urban population has grown from 97 million in 1950 to 222 million in 2000. Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Such unprecedented and unplanned urbanization wreaks environmental havoc by increasing carbon emissions, since higher population density results in greater automobile and energy use.
PlaNYC encourages the use of public transportation systems by creating powerful disincentives to automobile use. The plan's proposed congestion charge on automobile use during peak times in certain parts of the city would reduce traffic and generate revenue that would go toward improving public transportation.
Mayor Bloomberg's plan comes at the right time for a city burdened by worsening traffic and pollution problems. Vehicles cause nearly a fifth of New York City's carbon dioxide emissions.
Traffic congestion, in particular, is not only environmentally detrimental, but also imposes substantial time and resource costs on drivers. Americans lose around 3.7 billion hours and 8.7 billion liters of fuel sitting in traffic jams.
This implies an annual cost of around US$200 billion. Because of congestion, New Yorkers face the longest commutes in the US and their children have the highest rate of asthma hospitalization.
PlaNYC would impose the congestion charge on the 4.6 percent of New York City residents who drive to work, while its benefits would accrue to everyone. New Yorkers would enjoy cleaner air, shorter average commuting time and better public transportation. Neither the economy in general, nor the retail sector in particular, should be adversely affected. In fact, service and delivery providers in Manhattan, among others, would benefit from shorter travel times and fewer delays.
However, despite its many advantages, congestion charges face some skepticism. Fortunately, we can learn from other cities such as Stockholm, Singapore and London, which have successfully implemented them. In all of these cities, carbon dioxide emissions declined sharply and congestion was significantly reduced.
These cities have also benefited from more efficient public transportation. In London, bus travel rose by 46 percent. According to an independent report, almost 60 percent of businesses in London judged the program's impact on the economy as positive or neutral.
Automobile-dependent countries like the US need smart solutions to ensure environmentally sustainable development. Having one of the largest urban populations and the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions, the US has the responsibility to lead the world on this front.